‘Dry Land’ treats sensitive issues with finesse
A sincere, caustic and occasionally humorous foray into teenage sexuality, female friendship and the question of reproductive rights in the United States, Brandeis Players’ production of “Dry Land” didn’t pull its punches. Though the same can’t be said for the feigned physical blows in the show, the strong emotional performances from main characters Amy (Patricia Cordischi ’18) and Ester (Sophia Massidda ’20) left the audience bruised and thinking of the play long after it ended.
The play by Ruby Rae Spiegel, 90 minutes without intermission, was directed by Peter Diamond ’20, assistant-directed by Zoë Rose ’20 and performed in the Shapiro Campus Center Multipurpose Room. Despite the limitations of the venue, the production staff managed to make the most of the space with clever use of the main entrance and an efficient set designed by Amanda Ehrmann ’18. An island of tile flooring, three blue lockers, a trash can and a bench established the swim team locker room that would become the main characters’ refuge from social turmoil. Save for one scene, the entirety of the play takes place in this one room, both safe and oppressive in its supposed privacy.
“Dry Land” follows the tentative friendship between the acerbic Amy and hesitant Ester, both students at an undetermined high school in Florida and members of the swim team. However, the foundation of their friendship stems from neither school work nor swimming, but rather Amy’s attempts to terminate her pregnancy. In Florida, individuals under the age of 18 need parental consent to have an abortion, an option Amy feels she cannot consider, forcing her to seek Ester’s assistance in a series of do-it-yourself attempts at abortion. Through their efforts, which range from uncomfortably funny to worryingly unsettling, the girls come to know, though not quite understand, each other.
Rather than a ham-fisted commentary on abortion, “Dry Land” manages to be a story about teenage girls: their struggles, their relationships and their resilience. At the start of the play, Ester is still recovering from the emotional repercussions of an eating disorder and attempted suicide. However, through her interactions with Amy and a surprisingly packed conversation with her college-visit host, Victor (Eli Esrig ’19), she seems to settle into her own skin. However, though this play presents the closing arc of Ester’s recovery, it ends at just the beginning of Amy’s.
All advertisements of the production had included a content warning for stage blood. This proved prudent, as Amy’s eventual successful abortion was brought to harrowing life by Cordischi’s agonized performance and Massidda’s display of firm compassion in the face of rejection. Although the playwright Spiegel likely intended for a different line to become the zinger of the show, what lingered in Diamond’s direction was Amy’s distressed cry, “Don’t look at me!” and though Ester does in that moment look away, the line highlighted just how much Ester had watched Amy in earlier scenes. It then, in a following scene, drew attention to how Amy did not look away from Ester.
In the end, the greater flaws of the play were not those of the performers, but the script itself. After the abortion scene, the Janitor (Andrew Hyde ’17) walks in, with earphones in, and wordlessly mops up the blood and supposed afterbirth in an indecipherable step into surrealism. Caroline Kriesen’s ’20 performance as party-girl Reba was laudable, injecting new life into scenes that might have otherwise grown stale, but a number of the character’s one-liners hit too hard. There were also several emotional revelations throughout the play which came off as formulaic, a touch too convenient to feel natural or earned.
However, all in all, Diamond and his team took on an ambitious project for their spring performance, and the final product — though with room for polish, had time allowed it — was a powerful one.